120-year-old murder case ‘retried’ in Fort Smith

story and photos by Ruby Dean
rdean@thecitywire.com

About 120 years ago, legendary Federal Judge Isaac Parker heard the case of the United States v. Alexander.

A mock trial based on this case was presented by the Fort Smith National Historic Site's staff and volunteers in front of a packed courtroom Friday night (Jan. 27).

Admission was $5 per adult with early reservations required. The program will be presented again on Saturday (Jan. 28), at 6 pm. This mock trial was based on transcripts from the second trial for Alexander.

According to accounts, on Oct. 21, 1889, David Steadman was missing after hunting with his partner William Alexander. Steadman's remains were found a week later and Alexander was accused of the crime. The body was so badly torn apart and eaten by pigs that the only items that could identify the body as Mr. Steadman's were a hat, spurs, two guns, a receipt and some money.

Without modern investigation tools, there was nothing to tie Alexander to the crime. The case was based on speculation.

Alexander’s attorney, J. Warren Reed, managed to have his case appealed by the Supreme Court. This was the first appeal to take place in Parker’s court. A few months later Alexander was retried for murder.

During the second and third trials, Alexander was found guilty by 7 and innocent by 5 both times. After serving three years in prison, he was allowed to go free and the prosecuting attorney said he could consider it an early Christmas present as he was released right before Christmas.

During the first trial, Judge Parker only allowed certain testimony to be heard by the jurors. During the second trial, Alexander was able to tell the jurors that “night riders in the white sheets” were seen the night in question. The Supreme Court ruled that Judge Parker not allowing certain testimony was against the law and therefore was allowed during the second and third trials.

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This case was the first case of Judge Parker's to be overturned by the Supreme Court. During Judge Parker's first 14 years he was in office, the appeals process was limited. In 1889, the Supreme Court heard the first appeals. Prior to that the only way a prisoner could avoid execution was to get a pardon from the President of the United States.

During Judge Parker's time, 33 of his cases went to the Supreme Court with 23 being overturned, which created legal precedents used today. Nine of the cases define how we look at self-defense. During Judge Parker’s 21 years, he heard more than 13,000 cases. Of those, 160 men and women were sentenced to be executed and 79 men were executed.

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